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Situations of Religion Freedom in India

Dear respected participants of this important consultation, the organizers and the most respected
dignitaries on the dais and my dear friends, I bring greetings to you from India.

I am greatly honored to be invited to speak to you about the experience of religious freedom in
India. I am grateful to the Chairman of Forum 18 Mr. Johannes Østtveit for inviting me to this
historical consultation. Thanks to my dearest friends Mr. Trond Sæbø Skarpeteig and Ms. Margot
Skarpeteig for introducing me to this study process.

I am indeed very happy to be among you. I feel indeed privileged to be in this great country and
great people.

This country has created a proud feeling in the minds of the world society. The genuine concern
and initiative of the Norwegian in relation to conflict-crisis resolution are greatly appreciated.
You are a unique people in terms of your commitment to justice, equality and liberty. I am proud
to be your guests and be part of this search for truth.

I want to extend my sincere appreciation to Mr. Thorne Arne Hellersia for all his efforts to collect
data and do this research which I hope will have a historic significance and a long lasting impact.

I do not know how appropriately my presentation fits within the scope of the study. However, I
will offer my reflection on religion freedom not as a legal expert but as a social activist.

Before I begin, I should, at least very, very briefly, introduce India to you so that you will be able
to understand what I speak in the right context. As you know, India is the largest democracy in
the world. Indian territory is divided to 28 states and 7 union territories. Each of these states has
its own state governments besides a central government for whole of India. The major political
parties now at play are: BJP, INC, CPIM, TDP, SP, JD(U&S), BSP, DNK ALkDMY,, BJD etc.

We have a -population of 1.02 billion or nearly 1/5th of the world population. The scheduled
castes (16.48%) and Scheduled Tribes (8.08%) account for 24.56% of the total population.
(Bangalore has about 6 million people). Hindus 82.0%, Christians 2.34 (decreasing trend 1971-
2.6%, 1981-2.4%) Muslims 12.12%, Sikhs 1.94%, Buddhists 0.76%, Jains 0.41% and others
0.43%.

India has around 21 major languages and over 1600 dialects. It has a number of diverse cultures
and religious practice. India is a country with countless diversities but live in relative harmony.

As part of the social context, it is important to know one crucial dimension of Indian society, the
caste system. The hindu community is divided into four major castes. Brahmins the priestly caste,
at the top of the hierarchy; the Kshatriya, the warrior caste comes next, then the Vysya, the
business people and the Sudra at the bottom. Below this caste system are the 'outcastes'. The 'the
out castes' are treated as 'untouchables' in the society . The sudras and the outcastes are expected
to do service to the 'upper castes. These 'untouchables' have been doing services to the 'upper
castes' such as manual scavenging-removal and disposing of the night soil, disposal of the carcass
of anything that is dead and rotten etc. They were not allowed to study or to read the scriptures of
religion and knowledge, violation of which would meet with very cruel punishment. This most
de-humanising system was the system for centuries and is remaining powerfully so. As a result,
the dalits remained deprived of any chance of socio political and economic mobility.

There were many movements in the country to break away fi7om the caste system seeking
possibilities of living together, outside caste structure. Charvaka movement, Bhakti movement
were examples of this emergence, however they were eliminated from the history. It is to this
context that Islam and Christianity arrived through rulers, business people and missionaries.

These religions were attractive to the most oppressed communities of the caste India. The
oppressed caste embraced Christianity and Islam with a hope of having a dignified life, in the
new religion. It was a search for human purposeful life.

Article 18 of Universal Declaration of Human Rights in Indian Context:


The effective implementation of Article 18 of Universal Declaration of Human Rights need to be
seen in this context. The Article 25 of the Indian Constitution offers freedom of religion and it
says: Subject to public order, morality and health, all persons are equally entitled to freedom
conscience and the right to profess, practice and propagate religion.

I know that legal interpretation or academic discourse of the above is not what is expected from
my presentation but a reflection of how is it realized in our country. Nevertheless a brief
comparison of significant points between the article 18 of UDHR and Article 25 of Indian
constitution is necessary. The UDHR Article 18 offers:
a. Right to change one’s religion- individual, or in community
b. There is no factor that restrict/control this process.

Whereas Indian constitution Article 25 offers:


a. Right to freely profess, practice and propagate religion. "Propagation" does not unequivocaly
offers the right of choice. It is interpreted in contradictory manner by people of different
views. The supreme court of India do not agree that propagation includes that decision of
individual to convert.
b. This freedom is subject to: Public order, morality and health. Union Government and State
governments have the right to make legislation to restrict/control religious expressions in the
name of public order.

The Indian context has two major issues in relation to the realization of Article 18 of UDHR and
article 25 of Indian Constitution.

1. The legislation is not categorical in offering fteedom of religion in its complete sense
including the choice of a person to convert.
2. The Indian society is intensely communalized. It would be difficult to implement even the best
of the most progressive legislation in this commurialized context,
Having said that let us see, what is the ground reality in India.

Aggression, Annihilation and Terror:


Christians have been and continue to be making significant contributions to education and social
and humanitarian work in the country. Nevertheless they have become the main target of the
Sangh Parivar (RSS, VHP, Bajrang Dal, Shiv Sena etc.) in the recent years. Attacks on Christians
where physical violence against the leadership of the Church, killing of the Priest, raping of nuns,
destruction of Christian Institutions-schools, colleges, churches, cemeteries etc. (Human rights
watch/Asia report 1999). I will state just one or two of the countless inhuman experiences of the
Christians in the country.

A nun belonging to the congregation of sisters of Immaculate Heart of Mary


working in the area of Chapra, Patna (Bihar) was on 23th September 1999,
kidnapped, stripped and then forced to drink the urine of her kidnappers. The
charge made by the kidnappers against this nun who extends service to the society
was that she was proselytizing the people (Times of India, Sept 24, 1999).

We know how cruelly the Australian Missionary Graham Staines working with
leprosy patients and his two little sons were burnt alive in Manoharpur Village, in
Orissa during January 22-23, 1999.

On Nove 26, 2000, the VBP cadres, allegedly made a forced entry into the Church
in Chhinda village, in Gujarat smashed the Holy Cross on the roof of the Church
and replaced it with a saffron flag. Not satisfying, they converted the church into a
temple by installing the idols of Hindu dieties. (Deccan Herald, Dec 18, 2000).

According to official information given to parliament there were 626 communal riots, in which
207 people were killed, 2065 injured, besides damage to the property during 1999 alone. This is
apart from numerous unreported cases. The victims of these riots have been Christians and
Muslims. Between January 1, and July 30 2000, 57 attacks on Christians alone were reported
Human rights features, Aug 28,2000).

It is certainly an approach of annihilation and terror tactics, violating not only the right to
religious freedom but right to life and liberty. It is certainly not in accordance with any values of
human civilization. The most tragic issue about this is that such acts of sacrilege, rape, vandalism
and terror against Christians have been perceived as patriotic acts.

Exclusion, Appropriation and Assimilation:


The concept of Hindutva propagated by the present Sangh Parivar and formulated by Vir
Savarkar says : Indian nationhood is the privilege of those whom India is fatherland as well as
holyland. Then later, Guru Golwalker refined it in his book, "We or our nationhood defined" he
says: the minorities owing allegiance to 'foreign religions':
" They must loose all conscience of their separate existence, forgetting their foreign origin. There
are only two courses open to the foreign elements, either to merge themselves in the national race
and adopt its culture or to live at its mercy so long as the national race may allow them to do so
and to quit the country at the sweet will of the national race." They should " respect and hold in
reverence Hindu religion, (they ) must loose their separate existence to merge in the Hindu race,
may stay in the country wholly subordinated to Hindu nation, claiming nothing, deserving no
privileges, far less any preferential treatment, not even citizens right.

The present situation is the manifestation of systematic implementation of the schemes of the
Hindutva visionary, namely: Exclusion, Assimilation and Appropriation.

The disappearance of names of more than 300 nuns from the Voters list in booth
Number 99 of Patna Lok Sabha Constituency cannot be seen as a clerical mistake
or as an isolated event but as a part of the systematic effort to exclude them and
deny their right as citizen.

The notice to Muslims written on the walls of Qamar Hostel in Ahmedbad during
the October 1969 riots which was repeated during 1999 riots asking them to 'Quit
India', is part of the same agenda.

Efforts are now to bring tribals and Dalits who do not come under the Hindu
religion (they are naturalistic and animistic) to make them Hindus. Even the tribals
who became Christians are brought back by force or other means to Hinduism.

Mass conversions of tribal Christians to Hinduism at the behest of Sangh Parivar


was reported by Asian Age IP Feb 2001. And in January 25, 360 Christian tribals
were reconverted to Hinduism under the banner of 'Van Vasi Kalyad. It was done
under the supervision of Sangh Parivar leaders, BJP Rajya Sabha member and
Congress leaders. The BJP Rajya Sabha Member claimed that re-conversion of
1,500 members of 315 tribal Christian families to Hinduism were done on another
occasion of " Operation of Ghar Wapsi" (Operation Return Home) (Deccan
Herald, Jan 26, 200 1).

Discriminatory Laws and Communalized Justice:


In spite of constitutional guarantee to ensure equality, non-discrimination based on
religion, there are laws in India that discriminate between religions.

a. There are laws relating to benefits of reservation meant for the scheduled castes and
scheduled tribes. A scheduled caste convert to Islam or Christianity cannot enjoy these
benefits. This law,is biased and , discriminatory to Islam and Christianity. It has another
function of inducing the Christian and Muslim Dalits to accept Hindu religion, so as to
regain these benefits. It also has an agenda of dividing the Dalits.
b. The special marriage act 1954, and modem Hindu Law enactment of 1955-56 have
provisions to deprive the converts to non-Hindu religions such as Islam and Christianity
of certain rights and privileges.

If a father or mother of a child converts to Christianity or Islam he/she will loose his or
her right to guardianship of the person or property of the child. A Hindu wife will loose
her right to maintenance from her husband if she converts to Islam and Christianity.
Conversion can even be a basis of divorce.

c. Freedom of Religion Act: States of Orissa (1967), Madhya Pradesh (1968) and Arunachal
Pradesh have Freedom of Religion Acts. These enactments put restrictions on preaching
of religion which may result in conversion. These enactments , sad to say, have been
upheld by the Supreme Court. Similar enactment was attempted in Gujarat state during
1999 but was put on hold. This is, not only a state of intrusion into the freedom of person
to choose religion but in practice it also discriminates the Christians and Islam.

National commission for minorities in its report for 1998-99 noted that "prohibition of conversion
from one religion to another by use of force, by allurement or by fradulent means ", provided for
in the these state laws , in practice seems to apply only in case of conversion to Chrsitianity or
Islam and not to "Suddhikaran" (the purificatory ritual of reconversion to Hinduism) or
"Operation Ghar Wapsi" (Operation Return Home) conducted by the Sangh Parivar leaders.

d. Uttar Pradesh State Religious Places Bill: The Uttar Pradesh State Legislature has passed
a bill which sought to make administrative sanctions, mandaotry for construction of a
religious place in the state. The minority community has been apprehensive of the said
bill. It is feared that it was aimed at curtailing religious rights of the minorities. It,
however, is waiting for the assent of the President (the Hindu January 136, 2001). This is,
very surprising and equally interesting bill, which should be seen in the context of
mushrooming of I-findu temples all over the country, Hindu temples inside the premises
of public offices, the keeping of diety and its worship inside the government public
offices etc.

e. Christian Marriage Bill 2000. No doubt, there are flaws, in the existing Christian personal
laws. Unjust elements, in the law need to be addressed. Nevertheless, the present
Christian marriage Bill 2000 on hold is aimed at intruding into the fights of Christians as
a religious community. It is also to provoke them into confrontation, that the communal
objectives of the Sangh Parivar would be fulfilled. The bill allows marriages only if both
parties are Christians; it allows the government registrar even if he is a non-christian to
solemnise a Christian marriage. It makes it compulsory for the Christians to register their
marriages. The punishment for non compliance of the procedures of the bill is too harsh.

The Christian leaders feel that this bill is violative of their freedom as a religious
community. It is also seen as a step towards implementation of Uniform Civil Code which
has been on the agenda of the Sangh Parivar for quite a long time.

A just Uniform Civil Code to ensure justice to its citizens particularly to the women of
India would be appreciable, but the problem is that steps like this are highly motivated to
disturb minority rights.
It is not only that there are biased and discriminatory laws which are violative of the rights
of the minorities, the executive and judiciary which is supposed to uphold constitution and
protect the fights of this citizen, are becoming biased and discriminatory. This is a very
crucial but a painful trend. We shall see few examples of biased acts of executive and
judiciary.

Justice D.P.Wadhwa (sitting Judge of Supreme Court of India) who was appointed to
inquire into the gruesome murder of Australian Missionary Graham Staines and two
children, absolved the Sangh Parivar of any connection in the murder. He, however,
simply rejected the evidence of large number of people who have heard the gang shouting
"Bajrang dal ki jai". Independent investigation by the Sarvodaya workers, state that
Bajrang dal was active in that area and that they were inciting hatred against Christians.
(Vigil, September 1, 1999). This is the same justice Wadhwa who in his report indulged in
aggressive objections to conversion.

41 Muslim youth in Hashimpura (Meerut, UP) was massacred by the Provisional Armed
Constabulary in May 1987, the CBCID inquiry report was submitted to the government in
1994 and the report indicted 60 police personnel for the cruel killing. Neither did the state
government serve a non-bailable warrant and a model punishment nor are the kin of the
victim giw-n sufficient compensation.

These experiences of Indian Christians, Muslims, dalits and tribals etc indicate the threat to their
existence and put them at the mercy of majoritarian religious communalists.

No aspect of human life is spared from being communalised. Education, Politics, Employment,
Economy, Art, Culture, Media and so on and so forth. A critique of religions and its role in the
society is important. But it is no time for ideological debate searching for the reasons but time to
act.

What we need now is not only a set of just laws, which would respect and would treat every
individual and communities equally, but also the mechanism and the political will to implement
such laws. Creating conducive atmosphere , that would enable every man and woman irrespective
of their identities, to enjoy such freedom is the most important aspect. Only then the Laws and
the Covenants, national or international, would become meaningful in its spirit.

It is time we filled the vacuum in the Parliamentary democracy with just, egalitarian, ethos and
ideology of governance and human welfare. It is time the empowerment of the Dalits , the tribals
and the minorities and the protection of their rights are guaranteed and they would feel proud of
being bom in such an India with her plurality of cultures and religions. Protection of religious
rights. is but a necessity of the democracy. It is time also for national, international solidarity to
uphold not just freedom of religions but the right of everyone to have a life with dignity and
exercise of his/her conscience freely.

Thank you all for your patient hearing and for this great opportunity.